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Trigaux: Tampa Bay area mayors pitch region's tech, startup economies with one voice

Tampa Mayor Bob Buckhorn, left, and St. Petersburg Mayor Rick Kriseman speak at an event Tuesday at the Tampa Bay WaVE business incubator in downtown Tampa to sing the praises of cooperation to help build the region’s technology and innovation economy.
Published Apr. 22, 2014

The mayors of Tampa and St. Petersburg walk into a business incubator …

That could be the start of a good joke, given the lack of cooperative history between past mayors of these two fair cities. But on Tuesday, Tampa Mayor Bob Buckhorn and St. Pete Mayor Rick Kriseman sat side by side at the Tampa Bay WaVE business incubator in downtown Tampa to sing the praises of cooperation to help build this region's technology and innovation economy.

"We will succeed together or fail alone," said the ever quotable Buckhorn. Hizzoner pointed to his green "Yes" pin supporting Pinellas County's mass transit referendum this fall during remarks to an audience of entrepreneurs, economic development and political leaders from both sides of the bay. "The key for us as policymakers is to create an environment to attract and keep the best and the brightest. Government — in limited fashion — can help set the tone by celebrating successful startups and the entrepreneurial ecosystem."

Kriseman echoed the Tampa mayor's enthusiasm even as he acknowledged St. Pete has some catching up to do. "I regret saying this but St. Pete was not ready to do benchmarking trips" — visits to competing metro areas — "or creating innovative economies," he said. "We are now moving in a different direction."

On one level, this gathering could be viewed as a watershed event. Less than four months in office and accompanied by the heads of the St. Petersburg Area Chamber of Commerce and the St. Petersburg Downtown Partnership, here was St. Petersburg's mayor coming to downtown Tampa to pledge cooperation.

"A few years ago, this kind of meeting would not have occurred," Kriseman said.

Behind the mayoral show is a fresh push by this region's technology and entrepreneurial communities seeking broader support and a stronger marketing message. Veteran area entrepreneur George Gordon, now chairman of the nonprofit Florida NEXT foundation that bolsters area startup activities, organized Tuesday's gathering.

"What I really wanted to do was get the mayors in the same room and say they are on the same team in promoting this region," Gordon said. "I think they delivered that message well."

Buckhorn acknowledged Tampa slipped into economic mediocrity by failing to innovate soon after it adopted the wishful slogan "America's next great city" in the late 1980s.

Those days are over, he insisted Tuesday, just days before Tampa hosts the first Bollywood Oscars held in the United States.

At Tuesday's gathering, a panel of area tech and startup experts suggested the Tampa Bay area still isn't marketing the region's startup business potential enough. Without a strong marketing message, young companies here can't attract early-stage capital from "angel" investors.

"Angels do not fund enough because they do not believe enough," said tech entrepreneur Tony DiBenedetto, founder and CEO of Tampa business services provider Tribridge.

His advice to the two mayors? More marketing, he urged. "On steroids."

Contact Robert Trigaux at rtrigaux@tampabay.com.

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